How do you make sense of it all—or any of it? How do you wrap your mind around this horrible, devastating event that has ripped apart families and sunk so many people into a deep, lasting sadness?
Grappling with what happened on a fog-covered hillside in Calabasas, California, early on a sleepy Sunday morning in late January remains an ongoing process for the Lakers and so many others. So does the grieving. That figures to continue unabated for a while.
On Wednesday, the Lakers held their first media availability since the tragic helicopter accident that claimed nine lives, including those of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. Outside the team’s El Segundo practice facility, a steady stream of fans and well-wishers stopped by a makeshift and expanding memorial that’s sprouted up in honor of Bryant and the others who died in the accident. The sidewalk of the training center was lined with pictures and posters, flowers and candles, balloons and basketballs. One fan left a Kobe jersey behind, another left a black-and-purple pair of Bryant’s sneakers. On Monday, the team had erected a long, white canvas wall, stamped with a picture of Kobe smiling, on which visitors could scribble messages. By 11:30 on Wednesday morning, all the space had been filled, and the team was in the process of putting up more real estate for people to write their thoughts and prayers. It is hard to oversell what Bryant meant to Los Angeles, Lakers fans, and the organization.
Inside the facility, head coach Frank Vogel addressed a media contingent so big it seemed endless. Vogel was the only member of the Lakers to speak. LeBron James and Anthony Davis chose not to talk, as did Bryant’s longtime agent Rob Pelinka, who now serves as the organization’s vice president of basketball operations and general manager. Vogel said he told his players they should “speak when you’re ready, and not before.” And as James mentioned in a somber Instagram post on Tuesday—his only public statement since the crash—they’re not ready. That’s why Tuesday’s game against the Clippers was postponed, with the team instead opting to have a private gathering at the practice facility that included an optional workout. In function, it was really more of a group therapy session where, according to ESPN, players, coaches, and staffers shared stories about Bryant and raised glasses of wine in his honor.
“I wanted our guys to come in mentally free, but to get a sweat, touch the ball, to be around each other,” Vogel said. “And then we had a lunch where we all spent time together and grieved together.”
Vogel called the experience “extremely emotional.” It’s been that way since the team learned about the accident during their flight back from Philadelphia on Sunday. The previous night against the 76ers, James had passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list and then later talked about how “surreal” it was to manage the feat in Philly. According to Shams Charania, Kobe and LeBron talked on the phone after the game. It was the last time they’d ever speak.
When the news broke, Vogel took it upon himself to visit with everyone on the plane individually and tell them what happened. Some people already knew. A lot of others didn’t. There were hard conversations and there was no short supply of tears. For Vogel, the news that children had been aboard the helicopter was what hit him hardest. Gianna Bryant, Payton Chester, and Alyssa Altobelli were all just 13 years old. Vogel, who has two daughters, sent his condolences to Vanessa Bryant, her three daughters, and the rest of the Bryant family, as well as the families of the other seven victims. He called it a deeply saddening time—though he didn’t need to say a word. The sentiment was written all over his face.
A look outside the Lakers’ practice facility for today’s media availability pic.twitter.com/TXpwi0LFCL— #RingerNBA (@ringernba) January 29, 2020
The Lakers are scheduled to play a basketball game on Friday. Whatever tributes, memorials, and outpourings of emotion were planned for Tuesday’s postponed Clippers game will likely magnify now as a result of the wait. The Lakers have closed ranks and sought solace in one another since the tragedy. Soon they will take the court again, and they will be asked questions again, and you wonder how they will process it all. You wonder whether they’ll be ready. In times like these—following the unexpected and premature death of a larger-than-life celebrity that prompts so many of us to consider our own mortality—it’s impossible not to think about how, as UCLA coach Mick Cronin put it this week, tomorrow is not promised. The Lakers are basketball players, and good ones, but who could blame them for wanting to do anything but play right now?
Vogel thought his team’s time together on Tuesday and Wednesday was “therapeutically beneficial.” He predicted that Friday’s game will be as well—though he also said he wasn’t ready to talk about what he might say to Kobe if he still could, and he politely declined to share stories about Bryant. He said he wasn’t “ready to go there.” Even while Vogel hinted at catharsis, he allowed that these last few days have been daunting. Grieving is messy that way. So is the idea of legacy and how we individually perceive people we knew only from a distance.
A lot of people have written about Bryant and what he meant to them this week. I suppose now it’s my turn. We grew up not far from each other on the outskirts of Philadelphia. He was a year younger than me. Our high schools were in the same athletics league. The first time I ever saw him play, he was a junior and I was a senior. I covered part of his senior year for our local paper while I was a freshman in college. He helped Lower Merion win its first state title in more than half a century. I remember when—while still in high school, before he took Brandy to the prom and skipped college for the NBA and became an international sensation—he would periodically practice with the Sixers. There were whispers and rumors about how good the kid was, about how he could play in the league right now. And then he did.
My career came into contact with his from time to time over the next 20 years. I’ll never forget when he promised to cut the Sixers’ hearts out in the 2001 NBA Finals—which did not go over well with the Philly faithful at the time, even though that always struck me as the most Philly thing he could have possibly said or done. I was there at the 2002 All-Star Game in Philly when the city booed him. I was there in 2015 when those very same people in that very same Wells Fargo Center cheered Bryant and gave him a sincere, heartfelt send-off when he announced his retirement and chose his hometown to launch a season-long farewell tour. And I was there, just this past Saturday, when James moved past Bryant on the all-time scoring list. I’d been around Bryant now and then and asked him questions since we were both kids, but I never knew him. Not in any real or meaningful sense. Didn’t much matter. I rooted for him all the while.
Like a lot of people, I was awed by his outsize talent. I was touched by the video of him and Gianna talking hoops courtside at a game in December. And I was retroactively heartbroken when the interview he did with Jimmy Kimmel about the bond he shared with his daughter, an aspiring and talented basketball player in her own right, resurfaced after their untimely deaths. And, like a lot of people, I have struggled to come to terms with Bryant’s life in full—not just his on-court accomplishments and his certain Hall of Fame career, or his post-playing days when he did so many positive things for youth and women’s basketball, but also what happened in Colorado in the summer of 2003.
In the wake of the tragedy—and the accident is that, it is unquestionably that—I have read and heard some people attempt to summarize what happened by calling Kobe and his legacy “complicated.” But the truth, as hard as it is for so many people to process after all these years, is that Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault after an encounter with a 19-year-old concierge. Criminal charges were later dropped, but only—as Lindsay Gibbs reported in 2016 in an exhaustive piece—after Bryant’s attorney used the woman’s name six times at a preliminary hearing despite the Eagle County court’s attempt to keep her anonymous, while the court also “contributed to the onslaught by inadvertently making private court documents public.” A civil case that included a nondisclosure agreement was later settled, and Bryant issued a public apology.
Kobe Bryant meant a lot of things to a lot of people. Much of it was positive, but not all, and none of it should be forgotten. If we’re going to be honest about Bryant and what he did with his far-too-few 41 years of life, we ought to account for everything, from the bright shining lights to the darkest moments and all the gray in between. There ought to be grieving and mourning and remembering the totality of Kobe—and not merely what’s convenient.
That’s not easy. But if any good could possibly come from something so sorrowful, it’s that it serves as a reminder that life is precious and quick and we should all prioritize accordingly. That’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, the idea that life could end any day. It was obviously something Vogel has considered, too.
Wednesday’s media availability was unlike any I’ve attended. The crowd around the head coach was as big as any you’d experience for an important game, but the questions weren’t about rotations or pick-and-rolls. And yet, despite the heavy subject matter, everyone expected answers. Vogel was asked what he did after he got off the plane in Los Angeles on Sunday in much the same way he might be asked about a late-game adjustment or a fourth-quarter comeback, and he offered a short but important answer that I haven’t stopped thinking about since.
“I went home,” he said, “and hugged my family.”
That’s as good a place to start as any.